Chapter twenty-three of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Security had been tightened at Bransen Labs and the patent for the Circadia X had been secured—one of the benefits of working for Bransen Labs was how much speed in bureaucracy his money could buy. Unfortunately, there was also talk about an emergency session of Congress to pass legislation regarding the use of any such device—a move for which Uncle Sam could not be blamed. If the experiment hadn’t been so fruitful, historical, and globally important, the whispered chatter contended that PISA would have been shut down and the Mars team arrested. After all, had some unfortunate airliner passed through the beam and instantly been whisked to a barren, airless planet, there would have been trouble. Big trouble.
Instead, PISA negotiated a sort of plea bargain that awarded Bransen Labs the patent but demanded that NASA would be given equal (and free) access to the design and related trade secrets, and would serve as an oversight committee to its use. Bransen’s attorneys assured him that accepting the offer was his only real option, so Bransen put on his best smile and announced at a press conference the joint NASA-PISA venture to explore Mars. Contracts were signed, loopholes were closed, and in the end the world suddenly had Circadia X1 and Circadia X2, and two wholly separate teams intent on exploring the red planet.
There was, however, no agreement that NASA and PISA would share the fruits of their explorations with each other, which made it a joint venture in essence only that Bransen referred to as “the fucking SPA”—the Save PISA’s Ass agreement. PISA never shared its ongoing communication with beings made of conscious light, nor the location of a temple on Mars the kids had told them about. In fact, they also failed to disclose how two children had been traveling to the planet astrally for as long as PISA had been investigating a trip to Mars, and they may have also forgotten to send out a press release about securing self-styled “astral physicist” Hiram McKenzie as a consultant.
All of this did not slip the notice of Deep-Space Ops, however. In fact, one sunny Thursday afternoon, security tracked down Bransen and advised him that “General Rauchbach of the army or something is at the gate and wants to meet with you.”
Bransen asked that he be ushered to the PISA conference room and quickly went in search of Howard Fobell and Carlos Resua. He told the others to take a break… off campus.
“What do you mean, a double agent?” Mouse asked, his voice rimmed with hysteria. His eyes shot all around the wine bar, glancing at every patron as if they were government spies.
“They told me—Carlos is a double agent,” John repeated. “He still talks to the military. He tells them everything.”
“But they have their own Circadia X,” Luci said, trying to calm their nerves. “So, I mean, it’s not like we have a lot to hide.”
Never having been prone to conspiracy theories, Luci was hard pressed to see the real drama here. They all knew Carlos and Howard had once been employed by the government, both in hush-hush positions, and to her recollection, she couldn’t honestly say she knew either of them had fully quit. In fact, had she been pressed, Luci would have opined that no one could really quit working for the government. It wasn’t an employer that operated like that, not at that level of clearance.
“Wait—who told you?” Mouse checked.
John’s expression dropped and his eyes began to look everywhere but at his confidants. He was nervous already, but now he realized he may have said too much. He should have spoken to his father first, but his father seemed too close to Carlos for his warning to make any difference.
“I think he tried to scare me away,” John replied, changing tactics. “That whole kidnapping thing—I think Carlos made it up. I think he called the government spooks on my dad, then told me he’d been kidnapped to try and scare me away or make me go back home and wait or something.”
“Why?” Luci asked soothingly. “Why would he do that?”
John sighed heavily, his eyes scanning the bar again. Luci and Mouse exchanged a concerned glance, but neither said anything.
“He did it because he knows I know about them. And he knows they’ve told me about him.”
John looked at them and could see he was making little sense. He sighed heavily.
“My father has this thing he calls a Crystal Prism. He’s been using it for years—as long as I can remember—to meditate.”
He stopped to take a few gulps of water.
“Eventually, I began to take it out and look at it, and then I began to notice colors in it, spiraling around and coming out of it. At first it terrified me, then I began to get used to it, and I stared into it longer and longer, until one day I looked up and I wasn’t in my house anymore. I was somewhere else.”
“Where?” Mouse breathed. “Don’t tell me you were on Mars?”
“Not on Mars, no,” John agreed. “But I’m wondering now—maybe I was in Mars, or in a cave on Mars. It was definitely underground. But there were these huge… things there. Headless things that looked like walking tree stumps, only covered with leather instead of bark. Their voices were high and strange and they didn’t speak English, but somehow I could understand them. They told me lots of things—like how to build my rebreather…”
“So what are these things?” Luci asked. “Are they like Ana-loop?”
Six months ago, she would’ve had the boy committed, but her short stint on the Mars team had pretty well overturned every preconceived notion she’d had about the nature of the world and reality. Had the team not been there to go through it with her, she would have needed to be committed. They all would have.
“They’re called the Golgantry,” John replied, his brow furrowed in frustration. “They’ve mentioned Ana-loop and someone named R’dau and others. I’m not sure if they’re related or what. But I do know they think Carlos and the government is trying to… well… get rid of them. Make them look like the bad guys so they can invade.”
“I think we need to talk to Bransen,” Mouse decided. “Sounds to me like Carlos may be using us to accomplish the government’s dirty work.”
“Let me talk to my dad first,” John asked. “Or at least tell him what’s going on.”
Back at Bransen Labs, Howard was in need of a stiff drink. The meeting with General Rauchbach had been odd, to say the least—ultimately without any specific purpose, but threaded throughout with so much double-speak and wink-wink talk that Howard had no idea what was going on. The general had said the meeting was to establish guidelines regarding a military presence on the Bransen Labs security detail, but the talk seemed to be more about making sure nothing came home from Mars with them, than it was about making sure the military was on-hand in case a foreign nation tried to steal and weaponize Circadia X.
Howard didn’t know who knew what about Mars and the beings that lived there, so he sat in an agitated state of silence as Bransen and General Rauchbach played verbal tennis, with Carlos acting as something like a referee. The only saving grace was that the meeting had been short and—Howard thought—ended with an agreement about a military perimeter outside the fences. But as soon as he escaped and headed for the relaxation room—and its liquor cabinet—he’d been hooked by his breathless son returning with Luci and Mouse.
“You’re going too fast,” was all Howard could think to say when he finally replied to his son. “When did you use the Crystal Prism?”
“Did you really imagine a teenage boy wouldn’t try and figure out what his dad was up to? Believe me, I was disappointed at first. I gave up trying to turn it on pretty quickly. I’d lie there trying to meditate, or whatever it was I thought you did—and then I had the hallucinations.”
“They aren’t hallucinations,” Howard snapped, immediately looking down apologetically.
“I know that now, Dad,” John said, drawing his father’s attention back up to him.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… your mother…”
“I know. She can be pretty mean—why do you think I’m here with you?”
Howard allowed a smile to flicker across his face, but just as quickly felt remorse for his ex-wife. She’d tried her hardest, effectively raising a son on her own while he worked long hours. It wasn’t exactly the fairy-tale marriage she’d signed up for, and the reality of that had finally caught up with her.
“She was only ever mean because of what I did to her,” Howard whispered, looking away from his son before his eyes started to get misty. “So you met the Golgantry?” he asked, changing the subject. He sucked in a deep breath and turned back to John.
“Yeah,” John agreed. “They were always trying to get me to visit places in the Lands Below, like Pitaethi and Rileth—does that sound familiar to you?”
“The Lands Below? Yes.” He nodded in agreement. “Pitaethi… Rileth… Below what, I always wondered.”
John nodded. “Well most importantly now, I think, is that they told me there were people from here—the Cities in Light they called it, but I could tell they meant here, outside the Crystal Prism—who want to destroy them. One man in particular they described, and I think it’s Carlos.”
“I think he’s helping the military get in to Lands Below, to destroy the Golgantry.”
“But why? Why would he?”
“Did you ever read Hiram’s book?”
Howard shook his head slowly.
“You should. He says the Golgantry are…well, evil might be too strong a word, but certainly not our friends. He says they’re intent on getting back here, to our side, and will destroy us in the process, so I figure him and Carlos came aboard to stop us meeting with the Golgantry, and Carlos is reporting back to the government, to help take care of the whole issue.”
Howard shook his head again.
“It’s all too much, John. I don’t think Hiram would advocate harming anyone—or anything. And I can’t imagine anyone wanting to harm the Golgantry. They practically wrote my papers for me, with their knowledge concerning the physical world and the true nature of light…”
Howard trailed off and stared into the distance, not focusing on anything in particular. John knew better than to interrupt his train of thought: He’d seen it a hundred times, where his mom would purposely break his dad’s concentration, and he wasn’t going to do that to him now.
“Maybe that is it,” Howard finally breathed. “Maybe they do want to come here, just as we want to go there. Not to invade, but to learn. Everything they’ve taught us… It’s all helping us get to them. And if we can drive to them…”
His eyes locked on John’s.
“Then they can drive to us,” John finished for his father.
“The military would certainly see that as a threat,” Howard whispered in a conspiratorial tone of voice. “But they never seemed to believe me…”
“The military must see this whole thing as a threat,” John pointed out in an equally hushed tone. “The Golgantry, the Light Beings…”
“We should tell Bransen,” Howard said. “His mission may have been co-opted and is being used to front a military invasion, and God knows what would happen then.”
“Luci and Mouse are already meeting with him,” John replied. “I just wanted you to hear it from me first. I’m sorry, Dad…”
Howard smiled serenely. “It’s okay, son. They should know. We shouldn’t have secrets among us, not with something this important.”
“I mean, I hope I didn’t ruin your work.”
“My work was never that important, John, I hope you know that. Never more important than you, despite what your mother may have led you to believe.”
But they both looked distant and concerned and lost in their own private thoughts.